By Arlene McKanic
Written in 1911, “Treemonisha” wasn't given a full production till 1972, and now York College has put on a big, beautiful production at its Performing Arts Center in conjunction with the Presbyterian Church of St. Albans.Granted, “Treemonisha” is a flawed work: its libretto and music don't quite hang together. But not because it features ex-slaves bursting into arias – people belting out arias in the houses of Italian courtesans doesn't make much sense either, to say nothing of warbling Valkyries. Nor is the plot creakier than any other you might find at the Met.There are simply infrequent, dry patches where the large cast has nothing to do or sing about that can't be rectified by director Pat Tomlinson's or musical director Dotti Anita Taylor's obvious talents.On second thought, perhaps the plot is a little creakier than usual. It's also daring and ambitious, but in a less obvious way than the music. Certainly, Joplin knew he was doing something revolutionary and he went for broke. It would be miraculous if such a work was perfect.The story concerns 18-year-old Treemonisha, the only educated person on a plantation full of ex-slaves. The time is 1884, and the first time we see Treemonisha, she's wearing virginal white and reading under a tree at the home of her adoptive parents, Ned and Monisha. Soon Zodzetrick the conjurer shows up and offers Monisha a bit of “goober dust” for luck, but Treemonisha sees him off. As educated as she is, she'll have none of this superstition.Later, she and her friend Lucy (the vivacious Kendra Hollingsworth) are kidnapped by the conjurer and his followers, who tie Treemonisha up and nearly throw her into a wasp's nest till Remus, dressed like the devil to terrify the villains, shows up to rescue her.When she's restored to her community she's made their leader, after exchanging her white dress for a golden gown. This might be where Joplin's plot gets subversive, for the theme was not only the upliftment of the recently freed black community, but feminism. To imply – because one could only imply back in the day – that a young woman who had been despoiled, even symbolically, could not only retain the love and admiration of her suitor but be chosen as the leader of her people was a bit bold.That said, the singing is sensational, especially the brilliant, ringing soprano of Karla Simmons' Treemonisha. When the conjurers kidnap her, you want someone to take that gag off her just to hear her voice again. Diane Glover is also good as her grieving, loving mother Monisha, as is Cliff Hicklen as Remus and the devilish, red caped James “Ajax” Baynard as Zodzetrick.Also good are Anthony Orlando Ogburn as Treemonisha's father Ned, Gary Lawson as Andy, Charles D. Carter as both the conjurer Luddud and the stovepipe hatted Parson Alltalk, Gary Lawson as Cephus, Jason Carrington as Simon, and the other actors who play “cornhusking, conjuring cotton pickers,” the “cotton picking quartet,” “swing people,” “pit singers,” dancers and frolicking bears.By the way, the comeuppance of Zodzetrick and his fellow kidnappers after they're captured might be unintentionally funny. There is no comeuppance. The saintly Treemonisha argues against them being lynched and they get off with a stern talking to by the townspeople: “Wrong is never right / And wrong you should not do,” Remus scolds in his lovely baritone.Oh yes, some of the lyrics do make you wince, but no matter. Turandot's lyrics are silly, too.The production is a treat to simply look at, with the women in colorful dresses, aprons and scarves, and the men in overalls and work clothes – props to production designer Marlon Campbell and wardrobe mistresses Estella Stewart and Judith May. Victor Valencia's sets are simple, with Ned and Monisha's little house, the tree under which they found their daughter, a scarecrow.The kidnap scenes are dominated by a black backdrop and a huge skull. The live orchestra, conducted by Taylor, is stellar, Tiffany Mussenden's choreography is lively and of note are the frolicking bears (Tamel Hollaway, Sherman Rodgers, Kelvin Pender) who chivvy Treemonisha about during her abduction. However, they seem less frolicsome than menacing, and their song “Ooo-arr… ooo-arr,” was creepy, making them appear like some species of demon.By the way, this is how Treemonisha got her name: She was first named after her mother, but she so loved to play in the shade of the tree under which she was found that “tree” was added to the name.”Treemonisha,” one of the musical works that garnered Joplin a posthumous Pulitzer Prize, is a marvel.